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The Dark Angel by Mika Waltari

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The Dark Angel by Mika Waltari

Post by annis » Sat June 4th, 2011, 4:38 am


On the 29th of May, 1453, Christian Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks commanded by Sultan Mehmed II, ending a thousand years of the Eastern Roman Empire. This apocalyptic event inspired Lew Wallace in 1893 to break out the purple prose and pen a grandiose historical epic called The Prince of India; or, Why Constantinople Fell. Some sixty years later it also served as a setting tailor-made for Mika Waltari's equally (though much less deservedly) obscure novel, The Dark Angel.

Finnish author Mika Waltari wrote a string of hugely popular historical novels in the 1940s and `50s, but these days he's largely forgotten. Of his books, only the first, The Egyptian, is still reasonably well known. This is a great shame, because Waltari is a terrific writer. Despite its age (Dark Angel was written in 1952 and first published in English translation a year later), it's still a vivid and compelling novel, written with an unerring dramatic sensibility.

Waltari was fascinated by transitional points in history marked by major shifts in political and religious realities, and a common theme in his novels is man's search for a deeper meaning in life. Dark Angel's John Angelos is a classic Waltari hero; a man alone, an adventurer, a wanderer and a seeker, always looking for elusive fulfillment in new places and experiences, but finding only transitory pleasures which often leave his soul disconsolate.

Scrupulous about historical accuracy, when he decided to write a novel about the Fall of Constantinople Waltari not only read the siege diary of Venetian eyewitness, Niccolò Barbaro, but went to Venice to see for himself the 15th century original in the National Library of St Mark. (This diary was the inspiration for his decision to write Dark Angel in diary form). He studied original Byzantine Greek sources like the writings of contemporary chroniclers George Sphranxes and Doukas, and spent time in Istanbul getting the feel of the city. John Angelos is a fictional character, but most of the novel's personages and events were real. Waltari wasn't averse to occasional artistic licence, though; for example, the real Anna Notaras had a happier fate than that of her fictional counterpart (or for that matter, most of her family).

Dark Angel is cracking historical adventure, but it's also a thinking man's historical adventure, incorporating politics, religion and philosophy as seen through 15th century eyes. At heart is the question of man's place in relation to God. John Angelos believes irrevocably in God's immutable place at the centre of creation. However he senses the winds of change blowing, and sees the inevitable fall of Constantinople as a defining moment marking the end of the Age of God, and the beginning of the Age of Man.

"Small indeed does man appear before this gigantic, thousand-year-old wall. But time engulfs everything. Even the mightiest rampart must one day fall - one era gives way to another."

Soon Man will replace God at the centre of the universe, and Angelos doesn't want to be part of such a world.

Like Nicholas Hook conversing with his saints in Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt, it seems perfectly natural to Angelos that he should experience a manifestation of God as his senses are heightened by a long night of desperate fighting on the city walls. He perceives that man's sequential measure of time is irrelevant to God's time, where every moment - past, present and future - is perpetually enfolded within one eternal moment, a dimension without beginning or end.

"In this hour I knew also that I should be born into the world again in accordance with God's inscrutable purpose. And when this happens I shall bear this hour in my heart still, contained in the visions of my new life. Again I shall behold the headless corpses on the ruined walls that tremble in the firing of the great gun. The little yellow flowers will gleam out amid soot and blood, and the Guacchardi brothers in bloody armor will play merrily at ball with the heads of the enemy.

But this experience awoke neither ecstasy nor even joy within me, only unspeakable woe that I am and shall be only a man -- a spark blown by the winds of God from one darkness into another. More keenly than my bodily pain and weariness I was aware of my heart's longing for the ineffable repose of oblivion. But there is no oblivion."

Angelos' stubborn, fatalistic determination to die with the city makes sense as the story unfolds, revealing in tantalizing glimpses his true identity. His chosen destiny must be seen in terms of the freely offered sacrifice demanded of ritual kingship: "Blood returns to its source".

Dark Angel also follows the progress of a turbulent affair between John Angelos and gorgeous Byzantine noblewoman, Anna Notaras; sexual tension given a bittersweet, knife-edge intensity by foreknowledge of impending doom. The lovers' electrifying first meeting makes for one of the great opening passages in historical fiction.

"Today I saw you and spoke to you for the first time.
It was like an earthquake; everything in me was overturned, the graves of my heart were opened and my own nature was strange to me.
I am forty, and I believed I had reached the autumn of life.
I had wandered far, known much and lived many lives. The Lord had spoken to me, manifesting Himself in many ways; to me angels had revealed themselves and I had not believed them. But when I saw you I was compelled to believe, because of the miracle that happened to me."

With prose this eloquent, the wonder is that oblivion should ever have overtaken Waltari's work.

A prequel about Angelos' earlier life and adventures was published posthumously in 1981. This book, Nuori Johannes (Young John), has never been printed in English translation.


Some interesting links:

Mika Waltari and Constantinople
(Kirjasto website - it's obvious that English is a second language for the writer, but some useful info)

Waltari’s Dark Angel (The Diary Review)

Anna Notaras: A Byzantine Lady in Venice (Suite 101 Historical Biographies)
Last edited by annis on Mon July 25th, 2011, 10:29 pm, edited 13 times in total.

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Post by fljustice » Sat June 4th, 2011, 4:55 pm

Thanks for the review, annis! I'll have to see if the library has this one, it looks fascinating. Was The Egyptian made into a movie? I seem to recall seeing it once or twice on TCM.
Faith L. Justice, Author Website

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Post by annis » Sat June 4th, 2011, 6:31 pm

Yes, Waltari's The Egyptian was the basis for the 1954 movie of the same name. I have to confess that I've never seen it, though! I believe that Cecil B.de Mille did a bit of recycling and picked up some of The Egyptian's sets, props and costumes for re-use in his production The Ten Commandments.

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Post by donroc » Sat June 4th, 2011, 10:44 pm

Peter Ustinov was superb in The Egyptian. Edmund Purdom, the male lead was not a strong performer, to be generous. Most amusing, Zanuck's mistress de jour played the courtesan Nefernefer.

Bodo the Apostate, a novel set during the reign of Louis the Pious and end of the Carolingian Empire.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXZthhY6 ... annel_page

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